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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – There were 11 biathlon races at the Sochi Olympic Games, and the Russian team went through 10 of them without a gold medal.
The last one was Saturday night, where before a boisterous crowd, the country’s men’s relay team bested athletes from 18 other nations—with anchor Anton Shipulin using perfect shooting and blistering skiing to emerge as the fastest of a four-man lead pack in the race’s waning minutes.
Germany was second, after anchor Simon Schempp lost to Shipulin in a sprint finish. Austria’s team was third, 30 seconds behind.
Norway was fourth, squandering a 20-second lead they held in the middle of the race. The country’s collapse was capped by a stunning failure by their anchor, Emil Hegle Svendsen—the same man who had skied to a gold medal in an all but perfect race in the mass start earlier this week.
Svendsen entered the final shooting stage with the other three teams. But even with eight rounds—five of those in his standard clip, and three extras that he hand-loaded, one at a time—he couldn’t knock down more than four out of his five targets, leaving him stuck in the penalty loop as his competitors raced off to claim their medals.
Ole Einar Bjørndalen, the Norwegian who became the winningest Winter Olympian of all time at this games, with 13 medals, was left tied with his countryman Bjørn Daehlie’s record of eight winter golds.
The result was glory for the Russians, who, led by the tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov—yes, the guy that owns the Brooklyn Nets—had poured money into the country’s biathlon union, only to be stymied in their quest for gold until the very end of the games.
Asked about the pressure the athletes felt heading into the final biathlon race of the Olympics without a gold, Shipulin, the Russian anchor, responded by thanking the crowd that had turned out to the ridgetop venue Saturday evening with flags, colored hats, and noisemakers.
“It’s a special when you hear, each and every step, people shouting in Russia,” he said. “It even gave me more energy—I felt I couldn’t relax.”
Russia was in the hunt for most of the race, but it seemed like gold was Norway’s to lose after Tarjei Bø, who skied the country’s first 7.5-kilometer leg, tagged off to his brother Johannes Thingnes Bø with a 10-second lead.
By the time the second Bø tagged off to Bjørndalen for the third leg, the Norwegian lead had grown to 20 seconds, over a small chase pack that included Austria, Russia, Slovenia, and Italy.
But Bjørndalen didn’t have his characteristic speed on his skis on Saturday—and despite not missing a single shot, he still lost time to the Russians, the Germans, and the Austrians.
When the anchor leg started, the Germans were even with Norway, and the other two teams caught up in time for all four men to enter the last round of shooting together.
Svendsen, the Norwegian anchor, is one of the best sprinters on the biathlon circuit; matching his competitors on the shooting range would have given his country a good shot at the win—and even one or two misses likely would have preserved a spot on the podium, thanks to the three extra rounds biathletes can use for each round of shooting in relays before they have to head to the penalty loop.
Instead, Svendsen used all eight of his rounds, and still left one of his five targets standing.
His meltdown dropped Norway to fourth place, and left Svendsen and his teammates inconsolable at the finish. As the race wound down, Johannes Thingnes Bø sat on a bench in the outdoor changing area staring into the snow, with his face buried in his gloved hands.
“I do not have much more to say other than that I’m disappointed,” Svendsen told Norwegian broadcaster NRK later, after taking
nearly an hour to pull himself together for an interview. “The last target would just not go down.”
Dominik Landertinger, who was skiing the last leg for the Austrians, needed one extra round to knock down his five targets, leaving Shipulin and Schempp, the Russian and German anchors, to duel for gold.
Shipulin said he wasn’t worried so much about Schempp, whom he had already beaten in a relay finish once this winter—but Shipulin said he did keep looking back to see if Svendsen was catching up.
The crowd, which had exploded during the last round of shooting, gave Shipulin a surprisingly muted cheer across the line.
But if it lacked in volume, the victory still set off a celebration that enveloped the whole venue for the rest of the evening.
Sergey Kuschenko, the executive director of the Russian Biathlon Union and a longtime Prokhorov deputy, was spotted giving bear hugs to officials at the finish, and high-fives to the Russian athletes.
Volunteers and even journalists at the post-race press conference gave the relay team an ovation when they entered, and when the press conference ended.
As for the Norwegians? Inge Andersen, the secretary general of the country’s Olympic committee, said: “I have been too many years in this game to be disappointed.”
In an interview, he said the relay had been “fantastic” to watch, and that the country had already had a “beautiful day” on Saturday, after Norway’s cross-country skiers swept the medals in the women’s 30-kilometer freestyle race in the afternoon.
“Emil Hegle Svendsen is one of the world’s best biathletes. Today, it wasn’t his day, but that’s life in sports,” Andersen said. “This is worst for the athletes—not for me.”
–Chelsea Little and Alex Matthews contributed reporting.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.